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St. Augustine: Exploring the Hispanic Roots of the Oldest Town in the U.S.

Written by Javier Peinado

This blog post was updated on February 6, 2023.

“A person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.” This is, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, what defines a Hispanic or Latino. More than 13% of US residents speak Spanish at home…that’s roughly 41 million people! Being the largest minority in the country (near 59 million US residents), it’s no wonder that Hispanic contributions to American arts, politics, culture, and social movements are valued as an integral part of the United States’ core values.

We learned in school that everything started when Christopher Columbus, funded by the Spanish Crown, set foot on the shores of La Española (the island where the Dominican Republic and Haiti are located) while trying to find an alternative route to Asia in 1492. But, did you know that the oldest settlement in continental US territory is located in Florida? Founded in September 8th, 1565 by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, “San Agustín” was originally conceived as a village from where he could obliterate a nearby French Huguenot outpost. Which he did, by the way. But there’s more than carnage in its foundation: the city was also known as a true haven for fugitive slaves, a symbol of hope that eventually became the first settlement of free African Americans in US territory. Indeed, St. Augustine’s Hispanic heritage marks the literal building of a nation. A walk through its Colonial-style streets will quickly transport you to a forgotten age of discoveries and new beginnings. Sounds good, ¿verdad? Then join us in this route throughout the best this Hispanic paradise has to offer.

Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche

Our first stop takes us to one of the most sacred places in the country. It’s, after all, the first and oldest Catholic chapel found in the US! Legend has it that Menéndez de Avilés celebrated in this same location (currently known as “Mission of Nombre de Dios”) the first parish mass ever observed in what would be later be known many centuries later as “America”. The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche was consecrated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her nursing form (“leche” is the Spanish word for “milk”), an ancient devotion that can be traced back to 4th century Bethlehem. The shrine keeps attracting thousands of visitors from everywhere and helps arrange pilgrimage tours to accommodate everyone who wishes to pray at this crucial site for Catholicism.

Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park

Fountain of Youth

Grand Entrance” by Valerie is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tourist trap, you say? You bet. But you just can’t go to St. Augustine and not pay a visit to the alleged source of one of the most famous legends of yesteryear America: Ponce de León’s quest for the Fountain of Eternal Youth. De León, a Spaniard explorer who joined Columbus on his second trip to the New World in 1493, disembarked in Florida on April 2nd, 1513 (which is why he christened the new territory with the Spanish version of Easter: “Pascua Florida”). Although no mention of the mythic rejuvenating waters can be attributed to the conquistador himself, many authors such as Washington Irving, Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, and Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas contributed to the legend after De León’s death in 1521. The original terrain where he set foot has been reconditioned into a privately owned park aimed to divulge not only Ponce de León’s alleged search for magical waters but also historical facts regarding the original Timucua tribes that inhabited the area in Pre-Columbian times. Wild peacocks, historical reenactments and, of course, the “original” fountain from the stories will surely grant a fun and family-friendly experience during your visit to St. Augustine.

You may also like: 6 Places Where You Can Appreciate Hispanic Heritage and History in the U.S.

The Oldest Wooden School House Historic Museum & Gardens

This one’s pretty self-explanatory, but also really interesting. Located in St. George Street, this American treasure stands out as an irreducible testament of the hardships the original European colonists had to endure in Florida. Menorcans (Spanish settlers from the Mediterranean island of Menorca) arrived at this neighborhood in 1768 to work as servants on nearby plantations until they finally moved to St. Augustine. According to city records, this red cedar structure was present in 1716 (all of St. Augustine’s wooden buildings were burned to the ground after British troops destroyed the city in 1712) and was owned by a Greek carpenter named Juan Genoply. The hard-working immigrant added a second floor to the beautiful homestead and became a school teacher in 1788, teaching students reading, writing, and arithmetic in what is today known as the oldest building of its kind in the nation. His sons kept his legacy alive, fulfilling the academic dreams of the Menorcan students until 1864. Tours are available all year round, so if you happen to be in St. Augustine don’t miss the opportunity to learn more about this one of a kind cultural landmark.

Castillo de San Marcos

Castillo de San Marcos

Undoubtedly the most famous landmark in St. Augustine, Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the continental US, built to defend Spanish interests in the area during colonial times. The imposing fortress is not only special for its tedious construction (which was finished in 1695 after a long 23 years of work), but also the unique way it was erected: the walls are made of an ingenious mixture of sand and “coquina”, a mollusk whose shells turned out to be just perfect to absorb the impact of enemy fire. This revolutionary idea made San Marcos truly impenetrable and fireproof. As a result, British troops were never able to take the city by force during their constant military incursions from 1702 to 1740. During the Revolutionary War, the castle (now in British hands) served as a prison until it came back to Spanish ownership in 1784 and finally joined the United States in 1821. Exploring this National Landmark, with its stunning views of the ocean and plenty of exciting activities that history buffs will surely enjoy (such as cannon firings and weaponry demonstrations), is something that you just can’t miss if you plan to book cheap flights in October to Florida anytime soon!

About the author

Javier Peinado

Born in Barcelona. Raised in Madrid. New Yorker at heart. When he is not geeking out at a comic book convention or binge-watching superhero shows, this bilingual journalist loves to discover secret venues and hidden places around the world to fill his insatiable wanderlust. He also digs into ghost-busting, Bigfoot-hunting, and UFO-sighting. The truth is out there.

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1 Comment

  • Mark Webster says:

    That’s quite an interesting article .
    Many thanks indeed.